Kookooland, a Memoir

By Gloria Norris

Regan Arts | 2016 | 351 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Daddy’s Home!

On the one hand Jimmy likes having his nine-year-old daughter around, treats her more like a sidekick, partner in crime, a son. When he’s not putting her down by calling her “dummkopf” (she gets straight A’s) or “Dracula” (she has crooked teeth) he’s dragging her along to duck shoots, afternoons of using rats for rifle practice, hours of hanging out in the car while he’s fencing stolen air conditioners and TV’s.

When push comes to shove, he finagles things to his advantage and occasionally to his family’s. He helps Gloria’s half-sister, who’s 16, obtain an illegal abortion, thereby saving her from a doomed marriage. He teaches Gloria to shoot straight and to fight for herself. What else is there on the plus side? He’s obviously bright and street smart, and we sense he really does care about his daughters, especially Gloria.

On the other hand, the balancing bar is hitting the ground. Jimmy is a bully, a bigot, a racetrack gambler, a con man, a macho pig with violent tendencies, and someone who steals from his own family. He may also be a wife beater. While his wife works the night shift at an eyeglass factory, cleans houses, and takes care of all household matters, he does occasional landscape work.

He’s lazy. He’s a big drinker, so is his wife, and we can’t blame her for that. In later years, he’s on and off prescription Librium, dealing drugs and smoking pot. He calls women, including those in his family, “whores,” while he sleeps around, and terrifies them regularly by driving recklessly while drunk, waving guns around and firing them in the house. He defends his best friend who just happened to 86 his ex-wife and a guy she picked up in the bar. He’s quite a fellow and there’s even a hint he may have abused his older daughter when she was four.

Yet. . .Gloria Norris has written a terrific, compelling, captivating story about her childhood, with Jimmy at the center of all the drama. And, what a voice! Growing up in his household, she was always afraid, always “managing” her father, forever vigilant. She spends countless hours “outthinking” him.

 Inspired by a friend, she fights to get out. She wins a scholarship to Bennington, transfers to Sarah Lawrence and becomes a producer and scriptwriter (and now author), who rubs shoulders with the likes of Brian de Palma, Marty Scorsese, Robert de Niro and Woody Allen.

Your father is your father, Norris seems to say, and she works her darndest to prove that she’s come to terms with hers. Jimmy endured a strict Greek upbringing, knowing that his parents did not really care for him. We see the intergenerational trail of dysfunction. Families: they’re complicated! Norris says, here’s mine; here’s what I had to live with; and look how I turned out.

She’s done an admirable job in presenting the characters of her childhood in such a vibrant fashion, and taking us along on her journey as she escapes From the Projects of New Hampshire to forge a new life for herself in the big time.

We cannot help but laud her generosity of spirit. She refrains from blaming her father or her mother, who is but a weak pawn in the family drama, incapable of protecting her children, and a determined enabler. We pity this woman, wrenched from a quiet sheltered life on a farm in Nova Scotia and married to the first man she met, who happened to be a madman. She never rebels, never manages to separate from Jimmy, because, she knows, he needs her and she’s the only one who will stand by him.

Buried in Acknowledgments at the back of the book, third from the bottom, is Norris’ last tribute: “And last, but most definitely not least, I am indebted to: . . . .My father, Jimmy, who taught me to appreciate books and movies, who sat for hours of interviews and who said, ‘Crucify me, if you have to, to get the goddamn story right.’”

Readers, she got it right.

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